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In 1640 three men attempted to escape indentured servitude. The outcome lay the foundation for the split in America that lead to Civil War.
CHENJERAI KUMANYIKA: Kelly Stern is former school teacher and bookstore manager...Growing up, she noticed small things about her family that were different than the other families she knew in her Northern California town…
KELLY STERN: My, my, parents used words, especially my mother, that everybody else was completely clueless. Like uh, we raised horses and she would say things like “the horse is ‘faunchin’ at the bit.”
CK: This made her curious about who she was... But when Kelly would ask questions about where her family came from… the answers she got were confusing…
KS: And I would ask my dad what are we, you know, and he would say “Oh, English, Irish, black Dutch...” And I said, “what is black Dutch?” And he said “well, I don't really know.”[laughs] He didn't know he had no idea.
CK: And when Kelly would travel back east to Oklahoma where a lot of her relatives still lived, she’d ask the same question... And get the same answer
KS: my aunts and uncles they all said “Oh yeah we're black Dutch”... and not a single one of them knew what that was. Nobody did.
JACK HITT: So Kelly Stern went off to figure out just what her story was — and along the way she learned that her family's roots go all the back to the very beginning of slavery in America.
JH: I’m Jack Hitt
CK: I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika
JH: And this is Uncivil
CK: Where we ransack America’s past
JH: And learn that the only thing new in the world… is the history you don’t know.
JH: The story of Kelly Stern’s family begins in the spring of 1640, when three men… indentured servants… flee up the shore of the Chesapeake Bay… running away from the harsh conditions of their work contract…
CK: These men and the other earlier settlers in places like Virginia and Plymouth, weren’t pilgrims searching for freedom… they were here to make money… and they worked for companies... like the Virginia Company, the Plymouth Company, the London Company…
And these companies had investors who expected to be paid…
JH: The earliest companies were hunting for gold and silver, but they didn’t find any, and went bankrupt. But eventually, the companies in America figured out how to profit from a trendy new fashion in London.
So these company farms focused on this new cash crop. But tobacco farming was backbreaking work... The Virginia company managers had to lure workers, from Europe, and all over to come grow and pick tobacco. So, they made a simple proposition:
PETER WOOD: You can't afford to come to Virginia on your own, but I'll pay your way if you're willing to work for me for three or four years
CK: That’s Peter Wood, emeritus professor of history at Duke University.
PW: And then after that, you get a thing called freedom dues where you're given usually clothes, tools, a little bit of seed corn to get started, and you're also given land.
CK: This was the deal, that those three indentured servants who ran away had signed up for when they came to America…. They would work for a wealthy tobacco farmer named Hugh Gwynn… And their contracts specified that they would work for him for four to seven years… and in return they would be given land, and some money...
It sounded like a pretty good deal... But once they got here, they found out they’d signed up for brutal work and an otherwise hideous life.
PW: They hate the conditions. Bad food, bad sleeping conditions, long working hours, bugs and potential disease... the absence of medical treatment.
CK: The tobacco industry was extremely competitive. There were all kinds of obstacles to making a profit. So Hugh Gwynn pushed his workers to produce as much as sellable tobacco as possible, and he was willing to do anything to make that happen.
PW: There are whippings; disobedience is treated very harshly… for everybody.
JH: Lots of indentured servants died before they even got their land. And these three men faced the same risk.... So they decided to take matters into their own hands… they made a run for it …. They weren’t the first.
PW: You have a constant problem of people running away, just saying, "I'm not going to put up with this anymore.”
JH: But replacing these workers when they fled was expensive…. So Hugh Gwynn decided he wouldn’t let these three leave without a fight... He asked the Virginia government to fund a posse to track them down...
PW: “bring these three guys back." The colonial legislature decides we need to make an example of these guys. And they bring them back, put them on trial for having run away... broken their contract with Gwynn.
JH: In the court ruling… two of the fugitives… described as Victor, a Dutch man... and James, a Scot… were sentenced to an extra year of indenture at the farm, and three more years to the colony itself.
But the third man, John Punch… got a different sentence
PW: John Punch, is assigned back to Hugh Gwynn and forced to serve him for the rest of his life.
JH: It was an unusual punishment.
If you are going to throw the book at people -- why not throw it at all three of them?
CK: Well, there's a clue as to why Punch's fate was so different...
It comes down to three words in the ruling, “being a Negro…”
John Punch is one of the first recorded legal cases of a person of African-descent being condemned to a lifetime of servitude.
An African had to be sentenced to become a slave for life. It wasn’t a given.
JH: Only a few centuries before, if you had mentioned slavery. No one would have thought about an African. They would have thought of an Eastern European. That’s where the word Slave comes from. “Slav.”
But then the people of Eastern Europe built fortresses.
So the slave traders adapted and put systems of African slavery in place in Latin America and the Caribbean.
CK: But in North America in the 1640’s… if you were an African…. being enslaved was only one possibility.
Some Africans had access to the courts… they could marry who they wanted… One man was even elected to the Maryland General Assembly.
This is so different from how I thought about black people in early America. But that’s how it was.
Before this ruling… John Punch had been just like the other two men he had run away with…He had agreed to work for someone else for a limited period of time in exchange for money and land.
JH: So if that’s how things were - why did the judge single out John Punch in this way?
Unfortunately there is no 20 page judgement lying around that we can read... that cites all the reasons and explanations for this ruling…
So we don’t know why the court singled out John Punch as a Negro to sentence him to a lifetime of servitude…. but we do know what happened next.
The African slave trade expanded from 5,000 people a year to 45,000. So, for slave owners like Hugh Gwyn, there were far more Africans available for purchase than there were Europeans to be indentured. So, the early colonies started to take what happened in the Punch case. And make it law.
PW: In 1664, Maryland recognizes slavery is legal and declares that Blacks who are currently in the colony will be considered slaves.
CK: Passing laws like this could help Hugh Gwynn and other tobacco planters control their workers.
The core of the idea was to create two different kinds of workers.
The first kind - Europeans Victor and James -- would have limited term contracts and other slight privileges.
The second kind - African descended folks like John Punch -- would now be forced to work for the rest of their lives…. even their children be born into slavery.
John Punch was just one case. But it contained the seed of something much bigger.
JH: Colonies were now creating new rules and practices linking Africans to permanent servitude.
But this meant that they had to break with English law.
For example, it was illegal to enslave Christians. The colonies had the same rule… until black folks realized this rule could be an opportunity… and started converting…
PW: "Wait a minute. You mean if I converted to Christianity, I wouldn't have to work for you for the rest of my life? Where do I sign up?"
JH: Just a few years after the Punch decision, a man of African descent named Fernando went to court saying his conversion to Christianity freed him from slavery. And he actually won.
PW: So the very next month, the Virginia House of Burgesses passes a law stipulating that Christian baptism does not alter a person's condition of bondage or freedom.
CK: There was another problem when a woman of color, Elizabeth Key, sued for her freedom on the grounds that her father was a white Englishman... Elizabeth won her freedom… and so right after her case… the legislature broke with English law again and passed a law that any child of an enslaved woman… would also be a slave.
And this new law had another consequence - European men could now rape black women without fear of having children who could become free.
JH: And it seemed as if every sphere of influence began to tell the same story as the law —
Black men and women had to be enslaved…. but these people never mention profit or money… they invoked other arguments that, to them, spoke to some higher, unassailable purpose…
Slavery was their natural condition. Society needed to be protected from them. And, of course, God commanded it. Famous preachers like Cotton Mather began to say that enslaving black men and women was the moral duty of Christians, and Jonathan Edwards preached that a key sign of a black man’s possession by Satan was complaining about slavery.
Using this language, colonies were slowly creating two distinct categories of people: Enslaved Blacks and Free Whites.
The problem was that indentured servants like Victor, James, and John Punch felt that, in the way that mattered most, they were the same:
PW: They're thinking, "We're getting screwed as tobacco workers, you know. So we're going to bust out together…”
CK: Of course they noticed that they looked different. Their skin color. Maybe the way they spoke. But it didn’t matter. They were trying to escape.
PW: If you and I run away, I'm the bald guy and you're not, you know, but we're probably not thinking, "Oh, he's the bald guy and I've got a head of hair," or whatever, you know.
PW: They may have been as surprised as we are that they were treated differently.
CK: There were two solutions to the problems of Africans and Europeans running away. The first was to describe all Europeans whether plantation owner or worker using a new term. Whites.. And give them new privileges. For example European indentured servants were given new legal protection from harsh masters Their meager payouts would now be guaranteed - Fifty acres of land, two new suits and a gun.
There were also new jobs... Like working for the slave patrols.
Under these new incentives Victor and James would never run away with John Punch. They’d rat him out and keep the money.
The second solution was to close every possible loophole that an African could use to get freedom.
By 1723… 65 years after John Punch’s decision… Virginia broke new ground...and passed what were called the Slaves Codes… omnibus bills that covered every legal necessity required for holding a person captive for life — they dictated how slaves could gather, worship in church, marry, grow food —everything. And other colonies would follow…
Eventually… racialized slavery became an American institution and the central pillar of the colonial economy -- codified human bondage, lifelong, generational, and forever.
JH: But there were some people who fled the slaveholding system as it was being built.
After the break, an early resistance, and their unexpected, ingenious, escape.
JH: As the slave codes were passed and the restrictions got harsher and more defined, one group of people found themselves in a really precarious position.
Families of mixed ethnicity.
Some of these folks looked European. Others were ethnically ambiguous. But now when someone asked them what their race was? The wrong answer… could make them a slave.
So these familles started fleeing to the western part of Virginia where the laws weren’t enforced as heavily.
ELAINE TAYLOR: Things are just plain looser out here… you could tuck yourself, kind of under the bushes here, and be able to live in peace without being quite as fearful.
JH: That’s Elaine Taylor… she works at the Historical Society in Louisa County, Virginia… Where a lot of these families wound up.
ET: I mean there was nowhere else to go. You went as far west as you could to get land to live on.
CK: And this brings us back to Kelly Stern - the former school teacher who was trying to figure out her racial identity...
In her quest to find her ancestors… she found out that some of them had been part of this flight...
KS: As soon as race laws started showing up in Virginia they would sell their land and move on, where there were less rules and there was more freedom.
And so they would marry each other, and they were sort of hidden kind of from society for a long time.
CK: One of Kelly’s ancestors was an indentured servant, and he fled to Western Virginia because the law now forbade him to marry his chosen wife.
JH: Kelly knew that her maiden name - “Bunch” - went back to this man. But she learned that “Bunch” had been misspelled
KS: someone didn't do the bottom section of the P, turned into a B
KS: my ninth great grandfather was: John Punch
JH:: The same John Punch …. The African indentured servant sentenced to slavery.
And along with this discovery... Kelly finally learned about the black Dutch. It was more complicated than what she thought.
KS: the interesting thing is that black Dutch is Melungeon… Most Melungeons of my generation have no idea that they are Melungeon.
JH: Melungeon, it turns out, was the name given to some of those early families who fled the slave laws. They settled in the remote valleys in Appalachia and elsewhere.
Melungeon was a new race... and there were dozens of them, all generated at this time, up and down the eastern seaboard.
For instance, there were the Cubans of North Carolina and the Turks of South Carolina, the Delaware Moors and the Jackson Whites of New Jersey, The Redbones, the Pondshiners and the Bushwhackers. All claiming to be anything but black.
Over time they developed these protective stories that kept them safe from the slave laws— that they had no African ancestry because, depending on who you talked to, they were descended from Portuguese fishermen, or wandering gypsies, or Turkish sailors.
And some of these odd racial categories lingered into the 20th century, like in Kelly’s family…. passed down as treasured family lore.
CK: But nowadays, we have DNA.
Robin Patton, who works at Historical Society in Louisa County, Virginia, says recent DNA tests provide a clearer picture of the origins of the Melungeons.
ROBIN PATTON: They had been mapping voluntary submitted DNA samples for these families over time. They haven't found Portuguese yet, they haven't found gypsy yet….and they know that they are African.
CK: But when the results were published everybody wasn’t exactly ecstatic to learn that there was some African in the family line. So there were some unhappy Melungeons.
RP: Folks who objected were insistent that their roots were whatever their chosen family story was. It didn't it didn't matter to them what anybody else, or what any science said. They knew because it was in their oral history, that they were descended from Portuguese fishermen, or from, you know, gypsies who came in through some very specific route.
JH: But a lot of Melungeons embrace their legacy as the descendants of John Punch… And some them have spent their lives fighting for Black people’s place in American society.
Like Ralph Bunch… he won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1950…. And he’s one of the early figures of the Civil Rights movement… Here he is speaking in 1969:
RALPH BUNCH: There’s no more toleration on the part of the black man of inferior status of a denial of human and group rights, racial rights. …he’s everywhere searching for identity… demanding status, recognition and acceptance. And this is the crux of the black revolution.
JH: Remarkably, there is another direct descendant who also won the Nobel Peace Prize.
BARACK OBAMA: I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas.
CK: That’s Barack Obama… direct descendant of John Punch...on his mother’s side…
BO: I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners — an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.
JH: “In no other country on earth” -- Obama is so good at turning a messy past into a hopeful story. But it’s never that neat for most of us--and not even for Obama, really. Remember, his enemies in the birther movement eventually humiliated him into producing his birth certificate and prove that he was who he said he was. Who was he? He was a sitting president of the United States, reminded, that for a lot of Americans... he’ll always be a descendant of John Punch…
CK: Yeah that’s right. Obama had to be put back in his place. And to me, that’s what racial categories are about. They are not about culture, whether you eat soul food, or who can dance — they are about your position and power in society, who can vote, where you live. Where you sit on the bus.
It’s also about who can be in your family.
Here’s what happened when Kelly told her family about her research.
KS: My um, brother thought it was totally cool. And then my cousin posted an extremely hideous racial comment on Facebook about Black Lives Matter, and about how we should go back to the Jim Crow laws. And then they'd really have something to complain about, right? But I got on there and I said, “Well you know if we had those laws again guess what? You'd be sitting at the back of a bus because you do have a drop of African blood.”
JH: Uncivil is produced by Chris Neary, Chiquita Paschal, and Saidu Tejan Thomas. We had more help from MR Daniel. Our senior producer is Kimmie Regler. Editing by Caitlin Kenney, Sara Sarasohn, and Pat Walters.
CK: Our show is mixed by Bobby Lord. The music for Uncivil was composed by Bobby Lord and Matthew Boll in collaboration with Ann Caldwell & The Magnolia Singers.
Additional music features JC Brooks, Son Little, Haley Shaw and Saidu Tejan-Thomas.
JH: Our show was fact checked by Julie Beer. Our secret weapon is Christopher Peak.
Special thanks to Ibram X. Kendi, Julius Genachowski, Paul Finkelman, Linda Heywood, John Thornton, Mark Bunch and Dallin Hatch.
CK: Uncivil is a production of Gimlet Media. Our website is uncivil.show. We’re on Twitter and Facebook at Uncivil Show. And don’t forget to join our facebook group: Uncivil Podcast
JH: I’m Jack Hitt
CK: I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika. We’ll see you next week.